The sky was leaden and sleety rain was battering against the library window but inside the little wood stove was burning brightly. Hamish and Iona were watching a spy film on TV with Papa and Granny, who had come to visit, and Lily was lolling at their feet.
“What’s a dead letter drop Papa?” asked Iona.
Granny looked up from her book and answered before Papa could even get a word in, as usual.
“Its a secret place spies agree that they will leave messages for each other, like a hollow in a tree or under a plant pot. One of them will leave a message there and then when the other spy comes along he’ll look to see if there’s a message and if there is he’ll pick it up. That way no one will see them together.”
Hamish looked suspiciously at Granny and whispered loudly in Papa’s ear
“Was Granny a spy in the war?”
“Granny was only five when the war ended!” Granny retorted briskly.
Hamish looked enquiringly at Papa.
“She was” he whispered loudly “but she has to fib about it – that’s the rules”
Granny rolled her eyes and sighed….
The next morning, Granny was up early, clucking around in the kitchen and making breakfast when Hamish and Iona came down in their jammies, rubbing their eyes.
“It looks like it will stay fair” she said “shall we take Lily for a walk after breakfast? I’ll borrow your dad’s wellies.”
The lane at the back was awash and they splished and splashed merrily along, with Lily stopping every now and then to take a slurp from an especially tasty puddle. Hamish was still musing on last night’s revelations about Granny’s past as a spy.
“Did you have a gun Granny, when you was a spy?”
“Hamish I was not a spy – I was only a little girl during the war. I had ringlets and a pinafore for goodness sake”
“Like a disguise?”
Once Hamish got his teeth into an idea there was no stopping him. Granny looked around for a distraction.
“See that old telephone box” she said, pointing to a lonely red box at the end of the road. “Well that would be a very good place for a dead letter drop. You could go in, as if you were going to use the phone, and leave a secret message. Then your contact (that’s what they are called) could come along later and pick it up, pretending to make a call.”
Hamish looked knowingly at Iona and mouthed “Papa was right” as they all hurried off to inspect the box.
They were all four squeezed in the box when Vikram from Iona’s school walked past with his collie, Buster.
“What are you doing in there?” he asked opening the door “Is it a competition? Shall Buster and I get in too?”
There followed a hilarious tangle of paws and wellies as Vikram and Buster tried to get in and Granny tried to get out.
Snug in the box Iona and Hamish explained to Vikram about Granny’s exciting past, her gun that she kept in her pinafore disguise and her advice on spy messages.
“Cool” said Vikram. He looked with admiration at Granny and could quite see that she would be a tough operator.
“I know” said Iona, who thought Hamish had hogged her friend for quite long enough, “Lets us leave messages for one another in the box when we are walking Lily and Buster.”
“Just like spies” Vikram nodded enthusiastically.
And so Mum supplied a packet of sticky notes and over the next few days the old phone box developed a yellow rash of messages.
Papa was most impressed when the children told him and one morning later in the week took a stroll over to look for himself. He squeezed into box (just – Papa was quite round), fished in his pocket and took out a measuring tape. Humming to himself he measured here and there and noted things down in a little notebook with one of the funny flat red pencils he always kept behind his left ear. All that afternoon Papa was in the garage bustling around with some of Dad’s tools and an old crate mum had had plants delivered in.
“What are you making?” Hamish asked
“Its a surprise – I’ll show you tomorrow”
By morning Iona and Hamish were about to explode with curiosity as Papa emerged from the garage carrying something bulky covered with an old sheet which he carefully bundled in the back of Dad’s old Landrover. “Come on then” he shouted getting behind the wheel and Hamish, Iona and Lily scrambled up beside him.
“Where are we going?”
The beat up old car spluttered into action and they rumbled out of the drive and along the back lane, finally stopping at the old Simprim telephone box. Reaching into the back Papa pulled out his creation. It was a perfectly phone box sized cupboard. There were two little drawers, each with a shiny new padlock on the handle, three shelves above that and a row of hooks at the top. It plopped neatly into place on the shelf where the phone used to be.
“You can leave your important secret messages in the drawers” Papa explained “and give a key to your friends, so no one else can see them”
Papa gave each of them a little bunch of keys.
“The shelves are for useful stuff, like these” Papa said as he passed them each a tin of toffees.
After that there was a regular stream of dog walking children popping into the phone box. Tractor Tom and Sweet Sue took a stroll up too. Tom contributed a bicycle repair kit for the “useful things” shelf and Sue left a jar of biscuits and a first aid kit. Mum also came along and hung a couple of old woolly hats on the hooks and, to the children’s utter disgust, a packet of dog poop bags.
One blustery day, when a gaggle of children and dogs had congregated around the box, Mrs Johnstone in the end cottage, who had been hanging over her fence trying to work out what was going on for days, could stand it no longer. She bustled over and poked her nose around the door.
“Why what’s all this?” She asked
A garbled tale of spies, guns, pinafores and toffees tumbled out.
Mrs Johnstone raced home to spread the news.
Next day, when visiting the box, Iona found a new jar of mints on the shelf and a white message board perched on the top shelf. Written on it in Mrs Johnstone’s spidery handwriting were the words.
I have spare crabapple jelly if anyone’s mum wants some write your name below.
“That sounds good” said Iona sucking a mint, “I’ll write us down”
The Simprim Exchange had now well and truly arrived. A small library of books for swapping grew on the shelves. Two torches were hung on the hooks. Every day there was a new “special offer “on the board. Mum was especially delighted to get rid of five jars of dad’s chutney, making enough room for her bottled pears in the pantry. “What’s new at the exchange?” was the burning question to be answered after every walk.
Hamish and Iona had just popped in with Lily one frosty morning to see if there might be any new treats when Sheila the Postie drew up outside the box in her little red van.
“I’ve a delivery for the exchange” she said, lifting out a box wrapped in brown paper “from Japan judging by the stamps”
Iona had the paper off in a trice and all three peered into the box. Inside was Hamish’s old red woolly hat, which had gone missing from the hooks, and a dog eared copy of Moomins in Midwinter
“I put that on the shelf” declared Iona “I thought Vikram had borrowed it, he hasn’t read that one yet.”
Under these were a shiny tin box covered in pictures of jolly waving cats and strange writing and a letter on thin crinkly paper. Sheila offered to read the letter, which was in very small neat handwriting.
Dear keepers of this most useful telephone box,
We had to use your excellent puncture repair kit when passing by on our family cycling holiday last week. Whilst I was fixing our bicycles our son was kept beautifully warm in this lovely hat and amused with the stories in this charming book. We took the liberty of keeping the hat for the return journey and the book to finish the story. These we are returning now with our thanks and this small gift from our home in Japan.
The Yushimoto family
Iona was about to explode.
“What’s in the tin?”
They carefully opened it and inside were hundreds of tiny bags of all sorts of different snacks. They opened a few and declared them delicious, although Hamish was less certain about the green ones, which were very fiery indeed. Sheila helped them stick the letter to the notice board with some sticky tape she had in the van and they left the tin and most of the snacks on the shelf, for sharing, (keeping a few “coz it was our hat and book after all” ) and with Lily bounding ahead, they rushed home, pockets bulging with mystery snacks, to be first with the news.